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Apple's accidental business push?

For Apple, word of mouth, Vista angst and greater compatibility -- not overt marketing -- have won over enterprises.

Apple has made inroads with an expanded set of business customers of late, but not necessarily by design.

Solution providers say the purveyor of consumer items like iPods and iPhones has now found an audience in business accounts where it was largely absent just a few years ago. The company has long enjoyed the support of graphic design shops and other creative enterprises, but Windows has proven the general business PC platform almost everywhere else. Today, however, a broader range of businesses are buying Macs than ever before.

Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based Mac solution provider, has witnessed this trend. The company has traditionally been oriented toward Mac strongholds like graphic design and advertising. But lately, other business categories have been popping up, according to Michael Oh, founder and president of Tech Superpowers.

Oh cited medical offices and technology manufacturers as recent Mac customers. Financial services firms -- boutique fund management companies, for example -- have been particularly active, he added.

"Three or four years ago, we would never have had one as a professional services client," Oh said.

Bob Young Jr., president of ComputerTree, said the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Apple reseller and solution provider has added new clients for the Mac, including attorneys and a construction company.

"The world has changed its attitude about Apple and, therefore, the Mac," he said.

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A question of marketing

A number of factors contribute to Apple's business appeal, but the company's marketing doesn't rank among them -- at least according to some observers.

"There's no concerted effort to market to business," Oh said of Apple. "We're having to do the marketing ourselves, sell product at pretty small margins while competing against Apple's direct sales channel going after the same business, and having to build technical services."

Tech Superpowers has a close-up view of that direct sales effort, as Apple earlier this month opened a three-floor retail store in the solution provider's neighborhood. The store has made a splash in the Boston press and a big impression on the reseller.

"In the Boston Globe on Sunday, Apple said that they had pinpointed this location since 2000," Oh said of the Boston storefront. "The fact that we've been here since 1999, and no one from Apple bothered to tell us for effectively seven years that the store was coming in, shows that the company views us as a completely different business from retail."

Oh called the division of business (the channel) and consumers (retail stores) an overly simplistic view of Apple's customer base. He said small businesses go to the retail stores and are looking for better services than the store can provide. But Apple, Oh contended, isn't beefing up the channel "with the same enthusiasm and funding that the retail stores get."

Oh said his company is ready for the challenge and is hopeful that the positive influence of Apple store referrals will make the situation work. Just the same, Tech Superpowers has altered its business mix in light of Apple's next-door operation.

Tech Superpowers, Oh said, has always had a business-to-business focus compared with other resellers, but noted that Apple's retail store has "accelerated our focus on business and enterprise."

Solution provider ComputerTree has also shifted its marketing gears. Young said ComputerTree had been focusing on retail and enterprise customers, but observed that Apple has picked up a lot of that business. So the dealer has transitioned into the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market over the past couple of years.

But Young said he believes Apple is making more of an effort to help the channel.

"I think they see that we can reach an audience that they can't," Young said. "A year ago, Apple was more distant to the kind of reseller that we are. But this year, it seems like they are definitely making more of an effort to help us and grow us as a channel."

Young pointed to Apple's recent assistance in putting together a hardware seminar. The April event attracted 100 people representing businesses, universities and K-12 schools.

Yet, by and large, customer buzz plays a larger role than a formal marketing program in the broader use of Macs in business, noted Janet Schijns, president and CEO of channel consultancy The JS Group, based in Somerville, N.J.

"Apple seems almost consciously not to market to business," she said. "What they've invested in is word of mouth. That's the single most effective way to get penetration into new markets."

Indeed, consumers who are happy with their iPods and iPhones now clamor for Apple in the office. She said the "halo effect" engendered by those consumer items now extends to Macs in the workplace.

"They want an easy and fun computing experience at work just as they do at home," Schijns said.

Beyond consumer experience, Apple gets an inadvertent business push from Microsoft's Vista. Customer apprehension over upgrading to the operating system has led some organizations to opt for Mac OS instead.

Young said there's no doubt Vista concerns have contributed to Apple's extended business reach.

"They hear all the horror stories and just don't want to go there," Young said.

Oh said he hasn't seen Vista shops toss out the operating system and switch to the Apple platform. Instead, he said he sees companies running Windows XP and -- faced with an upgrade -- decide to go with Macs.

Compatibility boost

Apple's technology stance has boosted its business-sector prospects as well.

"Apple has done a better job of being compatible out there in the world," Young said, citing file formats and the ability to more easily share documents with PCs.

Oh said bridging the Mac-PC divide has become less challenging in recent years. He pointed to virtualization products that let Windows and Mac applications coexist on the same system.

"The virtualization technology that is able to run on the Intel-based Mac systems opens up so many doors," Oh said.

He pointed to Parallels and VMware's Fusion as products that allow Windows applications to run in a separate window on a Mac.

Parallels Inc.'s Parallels Desktop lets a machine run Windows and Mac OS X side by side on Intel-based Macs, without rebooting. A spokesman for Parallels said Parallels Desktop, which is less than two years old, has 1.1 million users worldwide. In some cases, customers run Mac OS X Leopard and Vista on a Mac, according to the spokesman, who noted that Vista has picked up since the release of SP1.

Peter Isgrigg, product manager with Tekserve, said Parallels has sold very quickly for the New York City-based Apple reseller and service provider. He said Parallels refers business to the channel when the company's sales team receives calls from users seeking more seats and licensing options.

"We get a lot of licensing business through them," he said.

Fusion, meanwhile, lets users install and run Windows and other operating systems on Intel-based Macs as virtual machines, according to VMware. Multiple operating systems may be used simultaneously without rebooting.

And Apple's Boot Camp lets customers start their Macs using one or the other operating system.

With compatibility issues put to rest, Schijns said "there is no real reason why you can't allow people to have their choice" of Mac or Windows. Schijns' firm affords its mobile and remote workers that choice when technology refresh time comes around.

At this point, the selection runs 65/35 in Apple's favor, she said.

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